Saturday, March 21, 2015

Seminar 2 Position Statement: Prof.Helen Kennedy (Sociology)

Understanding Internet Users' Thoughts and Practices

The expansion of data mining practices quite rightly gives rise to a range of concerns relating to privacy, security, surveillance, trust and transparency. These concerns are entirely justified when it comes to the spectacular forms of data mining that have hit the headlines in recent years, as carried out by the NSA (National Security Agency) in the US and GCHQ (Government Communications Headquarters) in the UK, as well as governments, law enforcers and other major corporations. However, we are currently experiencing many more forms of data mining than these. Writing specifically about one data mining space, social media, van Dijck and Poell (2013) assert that all kinds of actors (for example in education, politics, arts, entertainment, the police, law enforcers, activists) are increasingly required to act within what they call ‘social media logic’. Such logic is constituted by the norms that underpin the incorporation of social media activities into an increasingly broad range of fields, and one such norm is data mining. Because of this and related phenomena, there is today a diverse range of data mining practices, carried out by a variety of actors, in distinct contexts, for distinct purposes. Arguably, some of them are more troubling than others. In this context, it is important to consider whether we need to differentiate the types of data mining practices which we would want to subject to transparency and other regulatory measures. Should we treat a resource-poor public sector organization like a museum or local council, which uses data mining in order to understand, engage and provide services for its publics, in the same way that we view the activities of the NSA or Facebook? These more under-the-radar forms of data mining might be considered as mundane or ordinary; I suggest that we need to think about how to think about them.

On this subject, I think that, whilst it is important to direct attention to the issues raised by the activities of the NSA and the like, because of the spread of data mining that I talk about here, we do also need to attend to data practices on this ‘ordinary’ plane. How can we engage people doing what might be considered ‘ordinary’ data mining (a museum interested in visitors’ responses to an exhibition, a local council wanting to know what people think about cost efficiency measures) in debates about the ethics of data mining?  

What do ‘ordinary’ internet users think about privacy, security, surveillance and trust in relation to their data and its mining? In another post on this blog, Lina Dencik argues that many people do not connect with these terms. One solution to this problem that she suggests is to connect resistance in this domain to ‘broader ecologies of political activism’. Another important strategy is to identify what terms people do connect with, and how they talk about their thoughts and feelings about dataand data mining practices. This is important in order to be able to engage in conversation with ‘ordinary people’, in their terms, about the problems with data mining that have been well-documented. In research that I have carried out in order to explore this (Kennedy et al forthcoming), I found that the language of fairness was commonly used to express varying viewpoints on distinct data mining practices.

So I’m arguing for inflecting debates about data, transparency, privacy, security, surveillance and trust with attention to the ordinary – to ordinary data (mining) practices and ordinary people’s views on and language used in relation to these practices.

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